Like Love Affair/An Affair to Remember, In the Good Old Summertime is also one of those romances that’s proved very popular across time and space. This is a cheery little love story, of a man and a woman who begin corresponding with each other, fall in love through their correspondence (all without even knowing the name of the other person), and when they eventually meet, become instant enemies. Sounds familiar? Yes, that’s The Shop Around the Corner. Also You’ve Got Mail. And Sirf Tum. It’s also this film, a sweet musical remake of the original The Shop Around the Corner.
The man in this story is Andrew ‘Andy’ Larkin (Van Johnson), who works as the head salesman in a music shop called Oberkugen’s. Oberkugen’s is one of those wholesome, family-style stores that will never make money, but at least make a lot of people happily contented. Mr Oberkugen (S Z Sakall, aptly billed as ‘Cuddles’ Sakall) is a beguiling blend of the chummily paternal and the faux dictatorial. To Nellie (Spring Byington), the cashier-secretary whom Mr Oberkugen has adored for the past twenty years, he is an affectionate man who will do anything to bring a smile to the face of the woman he loves.
To his nephew Hickey (Buster Keaton! In the only good talkie I’ve seen him in), Mr Oberkugen is a bossy uncle who insists that he be addressed, not as Uncle Otto, but as Mr Oberkugen.
Along with the other salesman, Rudi Hanson (Clinton Sundberg), this makes up the taskforce of Oberkugen’s. They rattle along happily enough, selling musical instruments and sheets of music to customers—and turning a deaf ear whenever Mr Oberkugen, in a fit of joy, takes out his prized Stradivarius and begins playing it. Mr Oberkugen’s skills as a violinist are non-existent, but he thinks he’s a maestro, and nobody has the courage to disillusion him.
Of his colleagues, Rudi is the only one who’s in on Andy Larkin’s most joyous secret: his love affair with Post Box 237. We never get to see the back story on that, but this is clear enough: Andy Larkin is corresponding with a young lady—whom he has never seen, and whose name he does not know—and is by now head over heels in love with this faceless, nameless stranger. Andy shares occasional excerpts from her letters with Rudi, and spends all his free time congratulating himself on his good luck.
One bright, sunny day, Andy Larkin’s scurrying from the post office after picking up a much-awaited letter from his unknown girlfriend. As he rushes out of the post office, he bangs into a young woman, Veronica Fisher (Judy Garland), who’s rushing into the building. Andy Larkin is in such a hurry to get to work, he barely pays any attention to the havoc he’s unwittingly wreaked on poor Miss Fisher’s person: her hairdo is a mess, her hat’s in tatters, and her skirt’s been ripped up—all thanks to Andy. He does manage to press his visiting card into her hand, though, with instructions to let him have the bill for damages.
And sure enough, later that day, Miss Fisher, now much neater and more presentable, turns up at Oberkugen’s. It soon emerges that she’s not at the shop to present Andy Larkin with a bill for damages: no, she needs a job. Even though she tells Andy the names of other music shops she’s worked in, he flatly refuses. They have no need of any more salespeople in Oberkugen’s.
But fate plays a hand. Mr Oberkugen has bought a hundred harps that are nothing short of white elephants. Miss Fisher, noticing a passing customer showing a little interest in one of the harps, manages to begin a conversation with the customer, and has soon made a sale. Mr Oberkugen is suitably impressed, and before Andy has a chance to protest, Miss Fisher is on the staff of Oberkugen’s.
Miss Fisher and Andy Larkin continue the way they’ve begun: at daggers drawn. Weeks pass and the ninety-nine harps still lie unsold at Oberkugen’s, a major bone of contention between Andy (who holds that they should be returned to the wholesaler) and Mr Oberkugen (who hangs on stubbornly to his belief that the harps will sell). And Miss Fisher leaves no stone unturned to prove she’s a better salesperson than Andy Larkin.
Also in the picture is Louise (Marcia van Dyke), Andy Larkin’s neighbour at the lodging house where he stays. Louise is an accomplished violinist and is a good friend of Andy’s. In fact, he’s promised to get her sheet music from Oberkugen’s. Maybe, some day if he can manage it, even a good violin.
And now comes the first ripple that disturbs the slumbering surface of this pond. One morning, Veronica Fisher arrives at work brimming over with excitement. Nellie, her confidante, discovers the secret: Miss Fisher is finally going to meet the man she’s in love with. Yes, she’s been corresponding over the months with someone she hasn’t met (and about whom she knows nothing, not even his name). All Miss Fisher cares for is that her man is a warm, witty, wonderful person. And tonight, she’s going to meet him at a restaurant. She will be carrying a book of poems, with a carnation inserted in the book. He will wear a carnation in his buttonhole.
The very same morning, Andy Larkin is exultant and happy, telling Rudi how he’s finally going to meet the girl of his dreams. Tonight, at a restaurant…
Mr Oberkugen, to everybody’s chagrin, has a tiff with Nellie and throws a minor tantrum. The end result is that everybody at Oberkugen’s is made to stay back that evening to take inventory. Miss Fisher is distraught: what will her unknown ‘dear friend’ think?!
…Little aware that the ‘dear friend’ is the very man with whom she’s taking an inventory of those wretched harps at Oberkugen’s, and he’s equally annoyed.
Thankfully, Nellie finally succeeds in winning Mr Oberkugen around, and he orders the inventory called off. Miss Fisher rushes off home to change and then race to the restaurant—where, peering in through the window a while later, Andy Larkin discovers who his lady love is.
What happens next? Can Miss Fisher and Andy Larkin set aside their differences and accept each other as the near-paragons they’ve come to know on paper? Or will she always think of him only as the overbearing Mr Larkin, and will she ever be the pushy woman who bullied herself into a job at Oberkugen’s? Watch; this may not be superb cinema, but it’s a sweet, romantic little film that’s entertaining in a lovely, old-fashioned way.
What I liked about this film:
It’s a simple, straightforward story, embellished with some lovely songs (with Judy Garland in the cast, that’s pretty much to be expected). Nobody’s mean or villainous, and there’s a starry-eyed prettiness about the entire film that reassures you, even when the plot takes a swing for the unhappy, that things will eventually turn out all right.
But: what I liked most about In the Good Old Summertime: the end. Brilliantly done, perfectly paced, funny, and oh, so romantic!
What I didn’t like:
It’s just a little too sweet and too simple—almost simplistic. Don’t get me wrong; the reason that this blog exists is to celebrate the simplicity of good old fashioned cinema. The problem with In The Good Old Summertime is that it’s a little too uncomplicated. Even the little bit of sadness and conflict that appears in the climax is transitory and blows away with only a whiff of a message left behind. I’d have liked the characters to be more intense, their relationships to have more depth, their lives to have been more bitter-sweet than merely saccharine-sweet….
Perhaps it’s time to rewatch The Shop Around the Corner. Review coming up soon: watch this space.